Q: Where did all of the old pay phones go? Do any still work in this country? Can we buy them?
J.P., of Belleville
A: Can you imagine Clark Kent looking for a place to don his superhero duds these days?
Now the situation is even more like that classic Bill Cosby skit about Superman trying to explain his changing clothes to the police officer as he shows him the red S on his leotard.
“I’ll give you a ‘red S’ — and a black eye if you don’t come out of that phone booth!” the angry officer replies.
Today, the world might be in big trouble waiting for ol’ Sup to find a pay phone, much less the semi-privacy of a booth. Since peaking at 2.6 million in 1995 (or, depending on the estimate, 2.2 million in 2000), pay phones quickly went the way of camera film, movie rental stores and paper maps. The last reliable estimate I have seen says there were only 243,000 left at the end of 2012 (down 90 percent), although that number has surely dwindled in the four years since. Yet, believe it or not, some enterprising companies are finding a way to put new life into old phones and bring them into the Wireless Age.
But more on that in a minute. Pay phones have been in demand since at least June 1, 1880, when the Connecticut Telephone Co. reportedly installed one at its New Haven office. Actually, it was more of a pay “station” than a pay phone because if you wanted to make a call, you gave your money to an attendant sitting nearby.
Despite this inconvenience, it was an idea that entrepreneurs quickly realized would have people heating up the wires. So in 1889, William Gray designed the first true pay phone that would accept coins being fed into it and installed it at a bank in Hartford, Conn. Two years later, he began earning a series of patents for his ideas, including one for a “Signal Device for Telephone Pay-Stations” — those bell tones you may remember hearing as you dropped various coins into it. He then founded the Telephone Pay Station Co.
The amazing thing was that these early phones allowed you to pay after you completed the call, but as you might expect, this honor system did not last long. By 1898, Western Electric had implemented the prepay system we’re all familiar with today, and the pay phone’s popularity exploded. By 1902, there already were 81,000 installed around the country. In 1905, the first outdoor model, protected in a wooden structure, debuted in Cincinnati. (It apparently wasn’t until the 1950s when Superman could have used his first glass booth.) In 1960, the Bell System installed its millionth pay phone.
But as soon cell phones came on the scene, pay phones became another relic that, like phone books and VCRs, future parents will have trouble convincing the next generation actually existed. In 2001, BellSouth was the first company to exit the business. In July 2009, even AT&T officially stopped supporting the Public Payphone service. Verizon, which used to operate a half-million phones, sold its final 50,000 in 2011. A story in the Springfield (Mo.) Times-Leader found that pay phones in Missouri had plunged from 56,645 in 1999 to 1,345 in 2015,
So what happens to them? Some were simply left standing as a testament to times past (or a quick souvenir for some light-fingered Louie.) If you want one for your den or rumpus room, you likely can find some at antique stores or online. Untold thousands, however, likely wound up in landfills. There’s just not much other use for them.
But despite their plummeting popularity, don’t start playing “Taps” just yet. As Ashlee Kieler noted on consumerist.com earlier this year, you can find them if you hunt hard enough. Last April, for example, the Los Angeles Times reported that about 27,000 still were being used in California. And, according to the American Public Communications Council, more than a billion calls are being placed on them annually, most of them likely by the estimated 3 million American households that have no access to either landlines or cell phones, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.
Moreover, companies that still offer pay phones say they can still can be profitable. In fact, Michael Zumbo, president of the telecommunication firm Pacific Telemanagement Service, told the Times that if just three 50-cent calls are made per day, a phone will make enough money to be profitable.
And as I hinted at earlier, pay phones are finding new life — and uses. In New York, for example, CBS Outdoor has begun installing phones that are WiFi-equipped. So far, the company has installed only a few dozen, but they’re looking at ways to finance the WiFi through sponsorships to expand the service.
Other countries are becoming even more ingenious. Spain, which is pushing the use of electric cars, is said to be turning obsolete pay phone booths into car-charging stations because they are close to the street and are already wired.
Now that’s a really good call, I’d say.
What is the origin behind Chevrolet’s bow-tie logo?
Answer to Sunday’s trivia: Country music fans who visit the Country Band Jamboree at Walt Disney’s Magic Kingdom will hear a familiar voice coming out of the mouth of the rotund Big Al — country legend Tex Ritter, who will always be remembered for singing the title track of the movie “High Noon.” By the way, he and his late son John (“Three’s Company”) are the only father-son duo to be honored in different categories on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.